Canadian government lawyers have actively discouraged witnesses from co-operating with a probe into whether Canada knowingly put Afghan prisoners at risk of torture, a lawyer involved in the case has said.
The serious charge was levelled Tuesday by the lawyer representing a Canadian diplomat who's defying Department of Justice efforts to stop him from testifying at the inquiry.
Lori Bokenfohr, lawyer for diplomat Richard Colvin, also accused the Justice Department's lead counsel for the inquiry of “misleading” the Military Police Complaints Commission and its probe.
In a letter sent to Justice Department attorney Alain Préfontaine, Ms. Bokenfohr noted that he'd told the commission last week that witnesses other than Mr. Colvin had merely declined a request to participate in pre-hearing interviews.
“Your emphasis … was that these witnesses and subjects were simply exercising their individual rights,” she noted.
On the contrary, Ms. Bokenfohr alleged, Mr. Préfontaine actively discouraged other witnesses from co-operating.
She said that in late July, the Justice lawyer sent a letter to witnesses subpoenaed to appear before the commission that had a “chilling effect” because it warned that their reputations were at stake if they participated in pre-hearing interviews.
“From our perspective, the willingness of Crown servants to co-operate with the commission has been a matter over which you exerted early and profound influence,” Ms. Bokenfohr wrote.
“According to your letter, as a result of participating in pre-hearing interviews, government servants might face accusations of lying during public hearings, face greater risk to reputation and carry the potential moral burden of unwittingly exposing military and other colleagues and peers to disciplinary penalties,” she wrote.
“We expect that such a description of the pre-hearing interviews would unnerve even the most co-operative government employee, and it is thus hardly surprising that only one witness – my client – has agreed to navigate the minefield you describe,” Ms. Bokenfohr wrote.
Mr. Préfontaine could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
The Military Police Complaints Commission is trying to probe whether Canadian soldiers were complicit in handing over Afghan prisoners to that country's intelligence service because the soldiers knew, or should have known, that detainees were likely to be tortured in Afghanistan's notorious jails.
It has run into a string of roadblocks erected by federal lawyers that have delayed and severely limited the scope of the inquiry.
The hearing continues Wednesday, when commission chairman Peter Tinsley will rule on Ottawa's motion to adjourn until a decision is reached in the watchdog's appeal of a court decision narrowing the scope of the probe.